Suffering as Proof of Life: The Black Island by Kim Hoon

  • onOctober 23, 2014
  • Vol.15 Spring 2012
  • byCho Yeon-jung
The Black Island

Kim Hoon’s new novel The Black Island is based on the 1801 Catholic Persecution in Korea. Roman Catholicism, which was introduced to Korea during the Joseon era via China, began spreading widely to progressive thinkers and the masses from the late 18th century. Queen Dowager Jeongsun, who began to rule as regent once King Sunjo ascended the throne, persecuted Catholics. Included were scholar Jeong Yak-yong, his three brothers, and his nephew-in-law Hwang Sa-young, who were either beheaded or sent into exile. The Black Island opens with Jeong Yak-jeon, one of Jeong Yak-yong’s brothers, heading to Black Mountain Island, the place of his exile, and closes with him living in that island where he has taken root.

Locked up in Black Island, surrounded by black waters with nowhere else to go, the scholar Jeong Yak-jeon spent the rest of his life making ecological observations of the fish and compiled them into the famous Jasaneobo. Meanwhile, Hwang Sa-young, a brilliant young man who had passed the state examination at age 16, committed himself to preaching the Catholic doctrine with his in-laws. He was caught trying to send to China a white paper revealing the state of Catholics in Korea, and was beheaded in the end. It can be said that the 1801 Catholic Persecution was a power struggle before it was a religious persecution. However, such reconstruction of historical facts is not what Kim Hoon attempts to do in this novel.

In simple sentences written in his signature dry style, he plainly describes the resolute actions of those who risked their lives and their terrible sufferings, a depiction of the hope and despair of those who dreamed of a new world and even of the sacred destiny of life and death. Therefore, it seems only natural that this novel is focused less on the tragic protagonists of Jeong or Hwang than on the life of those in the lowest class, including the slave, the horseman, the boatman, and the gisaeng who were with them and desired a different world. The real subjects of The Black Island are the insignificant lives of nameless people, who longed for a new world and their irreproducible sufferings of life, that is to say, the sadness and vanity of human life. 

Author's Profile

Kim Hoon is the author of eight novels, one short story collection, and an extensive range of non-fiction. He received the Dongin Literary Award in 2001 for his breakthrough historical novel Song of the Sword, which was followed by many other honors, including the Daesan Literary Award. His books have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.